Care and Feeding

My Teen Is Being Awful. Can I Make Him Camp in the Backyard for the Summer?

Maybe then he’ll learn the value of household cooperation!

A tent with backpack and cooking gear outside it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the parent of a 13-year-old boy. My son has always been fiercely independent/oppositional. For the last 14 months, I have been working from home, and my son has been attending hybrid school two days per week. The other five days, we are home together. Nerves are frayed. Asking my kid to walk his dog, brush his teeth, put his dishes in the sink, or do his one daily chore results in arguments. He wanders around the house loudly singing rude lyrics to made-up songs just to irritate the other people in the house. Demands are barked out; “please” and “thank you” are nonexistent. Everything appears to be me vs. them in his mind, such that asking for something politely equals his parents “winning” and must be avoided at all costs.

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So, I am thinking of setting up our family tent, camp stove, bucket toilet, and raccoon-proof storage container of groceries in the backyard and letting my kid live in “Teen Land” for his summer break. In Teen Land he can set his own rules and have all the independence he wants. (He knows how to use the camp stove and make scrambled eggs, ramen, and other “teen” foods.) I would let him in the house three times a week for showers, once a week to do his laundry, and in the event of tornado sirens. I would also provide his groceries, take him to the library for books, drive him for meetups with his friends (provided he asks politely), etc.—we could even share a BBQ dinner together outside on the deck most nights. This would continue until my child decides that he is willing to live by household rules, do chores without arguing and contribute to the overall family well-being, and generally treat fellow household members with politeness and consideration. Is this a crazy plan? Am I wrong for even considering it?

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—Mom at the End of Her Rope

Dear End of Her Rope,

Sorry, but I really cannot endorse this, the crappiest possible reboot of My Side of the Mountain. It’s one thing if your kid wants to camp in the backyard on occasion, but footing his grocery bill and calling this lonely little backyard setup “Teen Land” as if it’s some whimsical new Disney World attraction does not change the fact that you’d be effectively kicking him out of your house for the entire summer. I don’t know where you live, but in some parts of the country one can’t necessarily survive the summer without air conditioning. “In the event of tornado sirens” is the point at which I personally expired. I’m curious what his other parent—you mentioned “parents,” plural—has to say about the idea of your son living in a tent and using a bucket toilet?

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You are not the only parent whose nerves are frayed. We’re all having a year, and it’s important to remember that our kids have been going through it with us, racking up their own frustrations and disappointments and losses. I hear that your son is getting on your last nerve—although based on what you’ve written, it really sounds like he’s being rude in obnoxious but fairly typical ways. I realize that you might be trying to joke a little here, but our practical and ethical obligations as our kids’ parents don’t go away just because we don’t like their behavior.

Now, if you get your 13-year-old vaccinated, find a camp that’s operating for part of the summer, and feel like it’s actually a safe option? That I think you can consider.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I, both men, adopted our son at birth. We had read and prepared extensively and chose an open adoption specifically because we wanted our son to have a connection to his mom (we would have happily included the birth father, but he didn’t reply to our lawyer). At first, there was pretty frequent contact. I sent pictures, emails, and updates, and arranged phone calls. We talked about future visits when he was a bit older. She replied consistently and expressed interest.

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But the last time my son talked to her was nearly five years ago. Over the first three years of his life, she slowly ghosted us. I’ve continued to send pictures about once a month, and she has an open invite to a shared Google Photos folder where I keep all pictures of our son. I’m going to hold up my end of the bargain. I want my son to know that I kept trying, that I never put an obstacle up to contact between him and his mother, because I know how important that is to adoptees. I asked the agency, and they said this isn’t uncommon. Sometimes moms want to move on. If I got a text or email saying she didn’t want contact, I’d stop. In lieu of an explicit message, I’m going to keep trying. After all, the last phone call we got was a surprise after a year of silence. But either way, my question is, how do I explain this to my son?

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—Open Plans Gone Awry

Dear Open Plans,

I know contact lapsed five years ago, but if you have any reason to feel genuinely worried for your son’s birth mother’s safety, you could perhaps see if anyone at your adoption agency is able to make inquiries? I don’t want to sound alarmist, she’s most likely OK—I could just see feeling a bit worried about her in your position, and it might be reassuring to you and/or your son to have some confirmation that she’s all right.

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I think it’s a good idea to continue sharing pictures to the shared folder in case she ever wants or feels able to view them again. Meshan Lehmann, a social worker at Adoptions Together who counsels birth parents and those considering adoption, agreed and pointed out that continuing to share photos might be important for your son’s sake as well—someday it may make a difference to him, knowing that his adoptive parents kept their promise on such an important matter. Lehmann said your family could also consider writing and sharing a letter—perhaps via that same shared folder—just saying that you’re thinking about her, you continue to speak of her positively within your family, you know this must be hard and complicated for her, and you’ll be there to reconnect if she’s ever ready to do so.

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I’m not sure how old your son is, but of course your conversation with him has to take into account his current age and understanding; your talks will likely expand and evolve as he gets older. I think right now you can start by saying that his mother loves him, and that she may also need space right now in order to care for herself—it might be very hard for her to be in contact right now, especially if she is deeply missing him or grieving the loss of raising him. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, or that she’ll never return and be part of his life. It’s hard, obviously, because you cannot say with confidence what will happen, and you may worry about planting false hope. Whether now or in the future, your son and/or your whole family might benefit from the support of a therapist who is well versed in the complexities of open adoption—I would perhaps ask your adoption agency if there are any professionals or support groups they can refer you to.

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Lehmann said it might be useful to help your son think and talk about how common it is to feel many strong feelings at once—e.g., terror and excitement on a roller coaster, happiness and homesickness when staying over at a friend’s house—as you talk about how very complicated adoption (and open adoption relationships) are. I think it’s really important to emphasize that neither his feelings nor his birth mother’s are wrong, and make space for whatever he wants or needs to express about her current absence. He may love her and still feel really sad or upset that she’s not in touch. He may not be quite sure how he feels about her right now. Whatever he feels, it’s OK.

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We always want to protect our kids from being hurt. But you can’t change what has happened, nor make this easier for his birth mother, nor keep your son from having whatever feelings he’s going to have about being adopted or his mother’s need to step back. What you can do now is be there for him, and make sure he knows he can always come to you and your husband with anything he wants to ask or express. Your adoption may not currently be as open as you’d once hoped, but you can still try to nurture a sense of openness when it comes to how adoption is discussed within your family: no feeling or question or subject off-limits, everything always fair game.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother and her mother-in-law, my grandmother, had an awful relationship. My father’s whole family has always been cruel and belittling to my mother, and even my father had little love for them. As a child, I was made aware of all this, which made our time together and my desire to have a relationship with them confusing and stressful. As I grew up, I came to understand their toxicity and their treatment of my parents, and lost all use and affection for them. I also feel that the way I was exposed to all of this when I was very young was not particularly appropriate.

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My father passed away a few years ago. In the process, I endured some notably unpleasant moments with his family, including my grandmother bragging to me about her age and good health during her one visit to my dad while he was in hospice. I feel no need to keep them in my life now that he’s gone. However, in a frustrating turn, my mother has gradually arrived at the conclusion that keeping them in her—and by extension, my—life is a way she can honor my father, even though he disliked them as much as she did. So now I have to hear about all the awful things they continue to say and do to her, but she won’t stop talking to them, and she guilts me into calling them on holidays because otherwise she will have to “hear about it.”

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Is it worth putting my foot down here? If yes, how do I possibly do it? When I’ve tried to explain that I don’t want anything to do with them because of how they treated her my whole life, she gets defensive and turns on the “I’m grieving, how could you try to make things worse for me?”–style guilt. I’m feeling extremely resentful that my mother is guilting me into maintaining contact with these awful people now, after she spent my whole childhood making me feel guilty for trying to care about them. On the other hand, she is still grieving, and I feel guilty giving them any more ammunition to use against her, or even telling her she can’t talk to me about it—my dad was the person she used to be able to vent to about them, and now he’s gone. What should I do?

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—Frustrated in Fresno

Dear Frustrated,

I am here and ever-ready to reassure you and others that you don’t have to stay in touch with toxic people who make you feel bad, whether they’re related to you or not. Do we sometimes go ahead and do this anyway? Yes. Families are complicated and often there is no perfect option available to us. But if you’re going to stay in touch with your dad’s family, it should at least be your own choice. If you really can’t stand them or how they treated your parents, you’re under no obligation to just get over it.

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Your mother should and probably will, in time, accept your decision (I imagine it’ll be easier for her to understand when her own grief isn’t quite so fresh). It is of course regrettable but in no way your fault if these relatives guilt her over your lack of contact. You are not responsible for their behavior. I hope your mother eventually cuts them loose for her own sake, if they get to be too much for her. But even if she doesn’t, my guess is that they will find other, not-you topics to bother her about in time.

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It’s true that your mom is grieving, and her feelings should be considered. But you’re grieving, too, and what you want—and can reasonably handle—matters as well. I imagine it would be hard to maintain communication with people who were so terrible to your father and are still terrible to your mother. I know you don’t want to make things harder for your mom—and I think you can tell her that, while also being honest and explaining that, as you grieve and figure out how to move forward in your life without your dad, it’s very difficult for you to maintain regular contact with his family. I really don’t think you have a responsibility to expose yourself to the pain and frustration that an ongoing relationship with your dad’s family would bring, and it sounds like he of all people would understand why.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently had an incident where I had told a family member something embarrassing about my health, and asked her not to share it with anyone. Within a few days, her husband was asking me about it. When I confronted her, she said, “Well, I tell my husband everything, so you should have known I would tell him.” I found this frustrating, since I spend a lot of time with her and her husband, and she has told me things she’s asked me not to share with him (nothing marriage-ending, just personal insecurities or hurt feelings about something her husband did). I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere pushing the issue, and have since realized I can’t confide as deeply in this person as I would like to. My question, as a single, never-married person, is around information-sharing—if I confide in someone who’s married, is it wrong to ask them to withhold said information from their spouse? Or do people have a “right” to things shared with their spouses in confidence simply because they’re married? (Part of what drives this question is I know some people are victims of sexual abuse, and I would NEVER tell another soul their trauma—it simply isn’t mine to tell. I would never tell it to a spouse without explicit permission or a truly compelling reason.)

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—Privacy-Respecting Patty

Dear PRP,

I don’t think it’s immoral to ask a trusted friend or family member to keep something private, even from their spouse (unless it’s a case in which keeping it secret at all will cause serious harm or put someone in actual danger). But while it may not be ethically wrong, sometimes it’s certainly inadvisable to make such a request, just because you know the person might not actually be able to do it—as you’ve recently discovered with your relative. No Secrets Whatsoever (even secrets that have nothing to do with them personally) would seem to be an organizing principle of marriage for some. Over the years, a few people I know have said as much to me: “I don’t keep anything from my spouse, so don’t tell me anything you don’t want me to tell them.”

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When in doubt about which camp a particular friend falls into, I might just ask! “Are you OK with not sharing this with anyone, including your spouse?” Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Hopefully they’ll be honest with you, and then based on their answer you can decide if you still want to share whatever it is with them.

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—Nicole

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